California dreamin’: UGA fans from both coasts thrilled to see Bulldogs in Rose Bowl

Georgia fans-Southern California-Bulldogs invasion-2017
Georgia fans in Hermosa Beach, Calif., stopped traffic on the Pacific Coast Highway so they could take this picture at their UGA stronghold celebrating Georgia's victory over Auburn to win the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 2.

ATHENS – Libby Fennell is what they call a “Double Dawg.” That is, she holds an undergraduate and a master’s degree from the University of Georgia. And she is beside herself these days.

Fennell lives in Los Angeles. The St. Simons native is also the president of the UGA Alumni Association of Southern California. To say that she’s excited about the Georgia Bulldogs coming to Pasadena to play in the Rose Bowl would be an understatement.

Libby Fennell

“It’s a little bit surreal for me,” said Fennell, who works at City of Hope, a cancer research specialty hospital in Los Angeles. “I drive by the Rose Bowl every day to get to work, and I’m like, ‘Is this really happening?’ My grandparents graduated from Georgia in the 1950s, and my grandmother just passed away recently. They would be so excited because they never got to see Georgia play in the Rose Bowl, and they traveled all over to see them play. Now the Bulldogs are coming to me!”

And they’re coming in droves. All indications are that a Dawg Nation migration similar to the one we witnessed during Georgia’s trip to Notre Dame earlier this year will commence next week.

It’s hard to tell exactly how many, just like it was difficult to tell how many Bulldogs fans were going to end up in South Bend, Ind., on Sept. 9. As it turned out, it was an extremely large number. Based on the red-and-black-clad crowd that made its way inside Notre Dame Stadium that day, well over 50 percent of the 80,000-seat facility were Georgia fans.

As for the Rose Bowl, organizers said capacity for the 2018 game will be between 94,000 and 95,000, with just under 90,000 tickets available for sale. Of those, Georgia and Oklahoma got 12,500 each for distribution among its season ticket-holders. Another 60,000 or so are distributed through the Tournament of Roses, PrimeSport and public sale.

How many of those ended up in the hands of Bulldogs, no one can be sure.

“It’s a very hot market, I can tell you that,” said Scott Jenkins, Rose Bowl management committee chair. “Actually, both sides sold out very quickly, and PrimeSport did as well. They wanted more, but we didn’t have any more to give them.

“Put it this way: This ticket is as hot as the one for Hamilton. It’s playing here until the end of December, and tickets are ridiculously high. These tickets are every bit as hot.”

Actually, the price of the tickets hasn’t been as bad as they were for Notre Dame. Some Georgia fans paid as much as $1,000 for a ticket to see the Bulldogs play the Irish, which was considered the most in-demand ticket of the college football season this fall.

UGA season ticket-holders had to have given a cumulative donation of at least $67,500 to the Hartman Fund for the right to buy those tickets. For the Rose Bowl, that number was roughly half – $34,400 – and donors got the right to buy them in increments of two, four or six depending on their overall score or amount they had given in the last calendar year.

Face value for the tickets is $175 apiece. They were ranging from $170 to $1,400 on secondary markets such StubHub as of Friday.

But the price of the tickets is not the primary challenge for Georgia fans for the Rose Bowl. It’s the cost of transportation to get there. Round-trip air fare from Atlanta to Los Angeles for flights leaving Dec. 29 and returning on Jan. 2 ranged from $1,200 to $2,000. Ticket packages that included transportation and lodging from PrimeSport started at $3,500.

That’s not a bad deal considering the expense and cost of living in California. But for Georgia’s most loyal fans, who already have made the trip to Notre Dame, to Georgia-Florida in Jacksonville and the SEC Championship Game, it could be a deal breaker.

As a result, a segment of Bulldog Nation is rolling the dice and putting its money on the National Championship Game instead. Atlanta hosts the 2018 National Championship Game, so while the price of that ticket is huge, Georgia residents will save significantly on travel should Georgia make it to the title game.

But a lot of fans, such as Brandon McEachern, an Athens Realtor and former team manager for the Bulldogs, consider Georgia playing in the Rose Bowl for the first time in 75 years a bucket-list trip that he has to make regardless of the cost. McEachern and his wife Heather also made the trips to Chicago and South Bend for the Notre Dame game, to Georgia-Florida and the SEC title game.

“It has been a glorious and financially devastating season,” McEachern quipped. “But I’ve loved every minute of it and wouldn’t miss this for the world.”

“It has been a glorious and financially devastating season.”

— Brandon McEachern, UGA fan from Athens

The Rose Bowl long has been considered the most prestigious of all the bowl games. Nicknamed “The Granddaddy of Them All,” it has been played longer than any other. It first was played in 1902 and has been conducted annually since 1916. It has been No. 1 in attendance every year since 1945.

But even this jaded old bowl is excited about hosting Georgia and Oklahoma. The Bulldogs are playing in the game for only the second time in history and the first time in 75 years. The 1942 Georgia team claimed the national championship after defeating UCLA there on Jan. 1, 1943.

Oklahoma has played in the Rose Bowl only once as well, though much more recently (2003).

“It’s a dream matchup for us,” Jenkins said. “Between [being ranked] 2 and 3, each institution having played in only one game and then the most amazing thing is these two programs with great histories in college football have never played each other, that’s just extraordinary. So we’re thrilled to get these two teams together to play each other in this wonderful venue.”

Nobody is more thrilled about it than those transplanted Georgians who now call California home.

Mark Slonaker is the UGA Athletic Association’s executive director of alumni relations. He was a regional development officer for the Bulldogs when he first returned to Georgia from coaching college basketball, and one of his primary territories was California. In that role, he would visit the various alumni association bases on the West Coast.

“Let me tell you, they’re some of the most rabid fans we have,” Slonaker said this week. “They have these watch parties at different bars around Los Angeles and San Diego and San Francisco every week in the fall, and they really get into it. I’ve been to a few of them. I went to one they called Glory Days at Seal Beach. The place was packed, and they were hanging on every play.”

Fennell and her brother Jacob Fennell, another UGA alum, attend one of “four or five” different Bulldogs watch parties around L.A. every week in the fall since she has lived in California. She was attending the one at Barney’s Beanery in Burbank when the Bulldogs defeated Auburn 28-7 to win the SEC championship and punch their ticket to the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.

It was in the course of that postgame celebration with about 50 other Georgia fans that Fennell realized that meant the Bulldogs might be headed her way.

“I always hoped Georgia would come here, but I knew it was a long shot because we’re in the SEC,” she said. “After they beat Auburn, that’s when it finally hit me. ‘Oh, my gosh, this is really gonna happen.’ This is kind of wild.”

Fennell already has her ticket. She was able to buy one fairly cheaply this week. She paid $185 to a friend who is a Southern Cal graduate and gets them from the Rose Bowl via annual renewal.

“Oh, I’ll be there,” she said excitedly. “And we’re going to have all sorts of fun things for Georgia fans to do when they get here.”

Fennell said her alumni chapter is hosting a brunch at Barnery’s Beanery in downtown Pasadena — which has a view of the Rose Bowl parade — Monday morning before the game. But she said there are pregame tailgates and parties planned all over Los Angeles all weekend leading up to the game.

Georgia fans can find deals on tickets and information about parties on their SoCal Dawgs Facebook page, Fennell said.

“I’m just so excited my people are coming out here,” she said. “We can’t wait until everybody gets here.”

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